The term “dad rock” seems to get thrown around a lot these days, seemingly applied to every band from Wilco to Dawes. If an indie record has a touch of country and some well-placed electric guitar, chances are one of your favorite media outlets has slapped the moniker on it like a warranty label on a lawnmower.
But let’s face it. That term, at once loving and derogatory, should be reserved for one band and one band only: The Traveling Wilburys. Was there ever a band assembled more perfectly for the tastes of my generation’s dads? Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, pear-shaped and gray-bearded, shuffling around and singing about being pear-shaped and gray-bearded. It is the very definition of baby boomer dads. Not fathers. Dads.
And why not? The band—which was reduced to a quartet between its two albums, following Orbison’s death in 1988—was lovable and self-effacing, well aware that they were older than everyone else on MTV. They probably had no expectation that they’d even be allowed on MTV, but there they were, singing about how the “end of the line” was approaching. They also won a Grammy. Ah, the eighties.
My favorite Traveling Wilburys song is “If You Belonged to Me,” which finds Bob Dylan in fine form. It’s an age-old concept—“You’d be happy as you could be if you belonged to me,” goes the chorus—but it’s also typical Dylan. “The guy you’re with is a ruthless pimp,” he sings in one verse, “everybody knows. Every cent he takes from you goes straight up his nose.” Like the best Dylan songs, it’s prickly but not alienating; in its gentle ribbing of the subject, it’s “Like a Rolling Stone” Lite.
I’m not always a fan of Jeff Lynne’s production. He’s done some great work—Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and especially “Free Fallin’,” for one thing—but I generally find it too polished, too fussy, too shiny. It’s an odd fit for the Wilburys, a band whose informality was central to their appeal. But I love his work here, especially on that “ruthless pimp” verse, on which the mandolins chug while the drums thump and clack like a train. It’s an ingenious combination.
So now that I’m becoming (more) pear-shaped and graying, has my love of the Traveling Wilburys grown? Yes. There’s something to be said for knowing how old you are, and though I’m still a ways from the fiftysomething Wilburys, I’m a dad with a receding hairline, and my love for puns and middle-of-the-road rock songs finally has a logical place. I’m growing into my age, just like a Wilbury.
It seems criminal to write about Roy Orbison and not write about his many classic songs from the fifties and sixties: “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” and of course, “Oh Pretty Woman.” They’re amazing songs, and they’re superior to the one I’m writing about instead. But I recently rediscovered “She’s A Mystery To Me,” and, well, I really like it.
“She’s A Mystery To Me” was written by Bono and The Edge. You wouldn’t think a Roy Orbison song written by the two leaders of U2 would sound very good, but I think this song really works. Even though it came out in 1988, the track mostly lacks the era’s production trends: there are no tinny drums, no unnecessary electric guitar flourishes. It’s just Roy Orbison singing about a woman. Which is all anybody needs in a Roy Orbison song.
Dwight Yoakam reportedly once described Orbison’s voice as “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window.” Bob Dylan said “he sings like a professional criminal.” It’s so covered in beauty and darkness that Bruce Springsteen called Orbison “the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded.” It’s one of the best voices that ever was, and in one of the rare instances of Bono not calling attention to himself, he and The Edge wisely wrote to Orbison’s voice when they composed “She’s A Mystery To Me.” The song’s verses are simple and understated (a tone that suited Orbison just as well as operatic drama), but the chorus is a classic Roy Orbison melody: high and mighty.
According to Wikipedia, Bono said the recording process of this song was something to behold:
I stood beside him and sang with him. He didn’t seem to be singing. So I thought, ‘He’ll sing it the next take. He’s just reading the words.’ And then we went in to listen to the take, and there was this voice, which was the loudest whisper I’ve ever heard. He had been singing it. But he hardly moved his lips. And the voice was louder than the band in its own way. I don’t know how he did that. It was like sleight of hand.
The song’s record, Mystery Girl, was released in early 1989, a few months after Orbison’s death. I remember the day he died. I was eight years old, and my dad came into my room as I was getting ready for school. He said, “Roy Orbison died.” I didn’t say anything back, because I didn’t know what the right response was (and because I probably only had a vague idea of who Roy Orbison was), and a few seconds later, my dad left the room. I think he just needed to tell somebody that the voice was gone.
It’s amazing what a little harmony can do.
I’d probably like “Claudette” if it wasn’t sung by the Everly Brothers, but I don’t think I would love it. Those two voices, so reedy but so subtantial, give the song an electric energy that I can’t imagine another artist providing. Roy Orbison wrote the song, and as much as I love Roy Orbison, I’m glad he passed it on to the Everlys. His voice is far too beautiful for this song, which only requires accuracy.
I could have picked many Everly Brothers songs, because they had so many great ones: “Cathy’s Clown,” “When Will I Be Loved,” and, of course, “Bye Bye Love.” But the intro of “Claudette” gives it the edge. That rapid-fire acoustic guitar always takes me by surprise, and the fact that it’s followed only a second or two later by the Everlys’ tight harmony makes it even more unnerving. It’s one of those songs that seems to power itself, to capture momentum from thin air.
Bob Dylan referred to his own aesthetic as “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” and I think that term could apply to the Everlys as well. As bold as their sound is, there’s also something skittish about it, as if it’s about to run away from them. It’s a sound that apparently seemed appealing to everybody they influenced, from the Beatles to Simon and Garfunkel (who covered “Bye Bye Love” at a reunion show in Central Park). But the Everly Brothers owned it, and they still do.